Oct 13, 2015
12:52 PM Nina S
Sep 11, 2015
THE LAST LAUGH
The Royal Fool might have survived the attack, and cracked a few jokes besides, but he was also bleeding a puddle on the floor and swooning in a faint. Without delay Prince Leo called for the castle physicians, and his friend was dragged off, protesting, for examination, leaving a trail of gore behind him.
Marco was not alone; the castle was in a terrible state. Hundreds of men had been felled by the Outsiders, and those who had managed to preserve themselves were still badly injured; some were even trapped among the debris scattered by the monstrous foe. So the second Marco was placed in safe hands, Leo laid down the White Knight’s sword and assembled a crew to tend to the other victims. He ordered the servants with lesser injuries to clear away the rubble. Some of the guards helped too, dragging off large pieces of broken furniture. Among them he saw Brutus Burllio, the guy who had saved him in Il Scuro. He finally remembered where he’d seen him before, in the training grounds screaming his head off at the other guards. Leo didn’t know he’d had a girlfriend, though, the big blonde who was now carrying four times as much as any of the men.
The physicians were quickly overwhelmed by the degree of damage, and so Leo helped his men to tend to the injuries of the soldiers, as he had learned to do when he had been a soldier on the field. He was glad he could help. The work steadied his mind, but whenever he saw the weary faces that surrounded him, he felt like he wasn’t doing enough. It was several hours before they were finished, and it was only then that Leo noticed his own shabby state. He was dirty, disheveled and pale, still wearing the torn shirt and leggings he’d had as a prisoner. He wasn’t about to complain. Many men had suffered far worse than him.
When the battle began, Leo had wondered why the Outsiders disintegrated under the White Knight’s sword. He’d wholly expected to perish miserably when he faced the demons. He guessed the answer was in Marco’s incoherent attempts to explain after his fall - the Outsiders fed on fear. They could do nothing without it, and so Fiorvante had tried to play to his enemies’ weaknesses in order to secure his own grasp on the kingdom.
When the monsters broke through the throne room windows, fear had been the last thing on the Prince’s mind. He only thought of his friends, of his sister. Maybe that was why the White Knight had triumphed before; he cared too much to fear for his own life or anything else, all he knew was he had to save the people he loved most in the world.
And…and when he had failed…that was why he ran away. And they were able to kill him for his fear.
Leo had lived, and the Knight had died. It wasn’t right, not at all.
There were a lot of things that weren’t right. Now it was time to fix what he could, if he wanted to make his kingdom a better place.
Leo passed through the castle in search of Lucia, slowed several times by servants and soldiers who needed his help or direction. At last he reached the throne room, where he found his sister in the custody of Signor Fabian. The dressmaker was examining the damage done to her ensemble, completely beside himself. “That little monster,” he hissed, clasping the torn remnants of Lucia’s skirt. “Didn’t care a bit about the cost of Andalusian satin, oh, no!”
Spying her brother, the Princess waved her stylist out of the room. Fabian threw his hands in the air and stalked off, still lamenting, as Leo approached.
The lower half of her skirt was completely torn away, and her thick plait had probably seen better days, but Leo felt his sister was just as regal as ever. She smoothed her clothes and faced him warmly. “Ah,” she said with a smile. “The rightful ruler has returned.”
It took him a minute to find a reply. His voice was lower than he wanted it to be. “Actually,” he said, “…she’s been here all along.”
He’d seen that look of complete confusion many times, but at least Leo knew she wasn’t disappointed in him. She shook her head, her brow furrowed. “I don’t…I mean, what are you – “
“You were right.” She’d forced him to say it before. He meant it now. “Valona needs someone who can…rule it as it deserves.” He looked at his boots, streaked over with grime. “That’s never been me. And…it never will be.”
He met her eyes. They both knew it was true. They both knew what he was trying to say. But his sister immediately refused.
“Leo, you can’t do this, it wouldn’t be right, and besides, I would never – “
She was cut off as the Prince heaved a tremendous, exasperated sigh.
“Come ON, Lucia! Can’t we use my idea, just this once?” He had thought about this long and hard! Three whole days!
She looked like she was about to argue with him, remind him it was his duty, his birthright, a hundred other contradictions. Instead - wonder of wonders - she launched herself at him and hugged him tight. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d hugged his sister, but it had been way too long. “Just this once,” she whispered, her face against his shoulder.
“So, when are you two gonna pick out curtains?”
Leo turned to find Marco scrubbed clean and bedecked in a fresh uniform. One arm was bandaged up, and he was already limping slightly. Leo knew from experience the real pain was going to start tomorrow, and was about to advise his friend on letting others take care of him. Then he saw he had a leather traveling sack slung over his shoulder, and asked, “Where are you going?”
In reply Marco snapped his fingers, and Jangle repeated the Prince’s imperious command, “I never want to see your face again!”
“Remember?” The Fool crossed his arms, a little insulted.
Leo clamped his hand to his forehead. “Oh my gosh!” Why, he’d completely forgotten, but he didn’t mean it, he never had, so all he needed to do was make the declaration and that would solve everything! He scrambled for the words. “Marco, I hereby UNbanish you!” He tried to sound official but suspected he’d failed, as he’d never been good at that.
Marco only raised his eyebrows at the proclamation, sighed, and pointed at the Crown Princess, sole lawmaker of the land.
Leo gasped. He spun around. Lucia would lift the ban immediately. He knew it. She had to! To his ultimate horror, she paused, finger on her chin.
“Lucia!” His shout was high and incredulous. “He just saved the entire kingdom!”
“I have no place for fools in my court.” Her tone suggested, ‘You should have thought of this before abdicating the throne.’
Leo choked, rendered completely speechless. His mouth dropped open so far Marco could practically see his guts. He looked wide-eyed at his best friend, who was inexplicably calm about the whole entire situation, and he sprinted to his side. “Don’t worry!” he cried, all in a rush. “You can still stay! You can live in the castle, you can be my guest, you can – “
“HOWEVER,” Lucia continued, raising her voice over Leo’s commotion, “I could use a Court Jester.” She turned to Marco with an innocent expression. “Know anyone who might be interested?”
Leo looked back and forth between them, completely at a loss, but Marco nodded slowly, a broad grin spreading across his face.
“Hmm. I think I know just the guy.”
Two months passed, and news spread that Leonardo of Valona had surrendered the throne, not to their demonic rivals, or to the pretender Fiorvante, but to his own sister. Though it would be hard work to convince the nobles of the surrounding lands to agree on almost anything else, they all believed that the infamous gala would probably be the last sign of festivities in Valona for quite some time.
Then they received their invitations.
When the ships sailed into the harbor, and the riders and carriages drove up the city’s cobblestone street, none of the travelers would have expected the poor embattled city to appear so neat and shining. It looked like it had woken up from a nightmare to face a bright new day. You see, the Princess Lucia could do a great deal in the space of two months.
Her first order, the very evening of that final battle, sent her men out to retrieve the White Knight. His handmaid related his exact location, memorized by heart, and they brought his broken body home to Valona where it belonged. There was not one person in all the kingdom who was absent at his funeral, and the procession spilled out into the streets for miles and miles around. It was rivaled only by the good King’s own ceremony, and the Knight was laid to rest alongside Valonian royals from centuries past.
In the cathedral, Prince Leo stood with the other soldiers, wearing his military tunic and armor. Claiming she had no head for military issues, which was a tremendous lie, the Princess appointed her brother Commander-in-Chief to the Valonian army. What she had said was true - Leo was not meant to sit on the throne. He was meant to be out among their people, taking action in his own stubborn way, and she knew she could trust him to do everything in his power to protect his kingdom - just as their father had done before him.
Princess Lucia’s second order was to banish the coward Antonio de Farro from the kingdom. For his spineless conduct he could have been imprisoned or worse, and no one would have objected, but the Princess had learned fear was a powerful oppressor, and she let him go with his life. In his place, at the Commander’s suggestion, Brutus Burllio was installed for his exceeding valor in the rescue of the Prince. During his inauguration as Captain of the Guard, his fiancée soaked countless handkerchiefs, and rained tears on the heads of many an unfortunate soldier. Hearing her Brutus choke with emotion as he accepted the post, she exploded into hysterics and had to be dragged out of the yard with love and pride shining in her bright blue eyes.
The Princess’ third order was directed to Signor Fabian and his company of Valonian seamstresses - after all, if she was going to be Crown Princess, she would need a fabulous new wardrobe.
Her father’s robes of state were carefully laid aside. In their place Fabian created a beautiful golden gown adorned with the Valonian pearls and garnets, and a robe of embroidered crimson velvet, which suited the Crown Princess far better and would serve her well for years to come.
It was in this official costume that she welcomed her guests to her celebration – yes, her party. Leo teased his sister about this hypocrisy for three full days, but it was easy enough to ignore him, and so she did. His old parties were to celebrate…Saturday, maybe, if anything at all. This one was to celebrate freedom, courage, and most importantly victory. Was there any occasion better than that?
The Crown Celebration was held in the castle’s throne room, with Prince Leo in his uniform and the Royal Guard attending. Many of the Princess’ most faithful servants were present as well. Izzy, the castle’s newest lady-in-waiting, stayed by Brutus’ side all night, becoming the first person to ever force him into a dance – in public, no less! Signor Fabian was extremely brunette and glowing with so much happiness he barely needed any rouge (he wore it anyway, just in case). Sergio had begged and begged to be allowed at the party, and looked resplendent in a brand-new suit of livery. Even the Chancellor penciled in the event, and made a dignified appearance.
Surprisingly, the person everyone wanted most to see – Valona’s mysterious savior, who had defeated the sorcerer Fiorvante – was nowhere to be found. But at the end of the night, one unexpected person did make a shocking appearance – the Royal Fool!
“Uh-uh-uh!” Marco shook his head and wagged his finger. “The Court Jester, thank you very much!”
Perfectly healed, probably because he had already broken every bone in his body twice over, Marco casually catapulted himself into the air. He flipped backwards several times before landing in between the crowds of royalty ranged on either side of the room. “In fact,” he added, with a mock tear, “you might even say I pity the Fool.”
From the pocket of his new uniform, a much more flattering costume commissioned by the Princess herself, Marco pulled his trusty deck of cards. He fanned them out in his great gloved hands and tossed them over his shoulder. He shot them marching like soldiers from one hand to another. Then he gasped, and cried out in a terrible voice:
Everyone in the room froze, stunned by this strange outburst. The musicians stopped, filling the room with silence. All eyes watched the Jester as he gathered his cards into a neat deck. He thumbed through them slowly, evidently hunting for something, peering at them with a frown. When he was finished, he turned to the bird on his shoulder and lifted his tailfeathers in search. Nothing was there.
He rushed to a man in the audience and peeped under his toupee.
He hurried to the Prince’s side, raised his arm to check his armpits, gagged, checked the other one, and gagged again.
He picked Brutus off the floor like a small stone and put him down when he roared in his ears. Nothing there.
He looked very grave, very serious, not at all like a silly Court Jester should.
“It is just as I suspected! Oh, how can this be?” He clutched his heart in despair. “Will our kingdom never have peace?”
“Que pasa?” the parrot inquired. “What’s wrong?”
“MY WILD CARD HAS BEEN STOLEN,” the Jester howled, “AND THE CULPRIT IS THE CROWN PRINCESS.”
Everyone went from stunned to uneasy (except Brutus, who was appalled, and Izzy, who was confused) as Marco levelled his finger at the Princess Lucia.
His own face switched from betrayal to acceptance with suspicious ease. He strode toward the Princess, who was completely unmoved by his display, and had the daring to lean his elbow on her throne. “However…I am willing to forgive her, and let her keep my card, if…she will pay me with a kiss.”
Since he completely expected to win this bargain, the Jester chattered on. “I have big plans for that Joker! I’m gonna make something of him! A card castle, maybe. I – “
There was a collective gasp, Marco included, as Lucia leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, his wild card poised between her two fingers.
Marco blinked, spun, and fainted flat in the middle of the throne room floor.
This caused a second gasp from his audience, although the Captain of the Guard insisted he was faking, just as he had done two months before.
Nonetheless, the Prince knelt down at his side. He looked the Jester over, then peeled up one of his eyelids, his friend’s eyeball staring at nothing.
Leo sat back on his heels and exclaimed, “He’s not joking!”
Aware of a strange sputtering sound behind him, Leo turned just in time to witness his sister, the Crown Princess, burst out laughing - a beautiful, delighted sound the Jester would have sold his own soul to hear.
Not joking? If she’d known it was that easy, she would have kissed him ages ago.
Sep 4, 2015
As she neared the lower floors she could hear the sounds of battle. She crept toward the gallery above the throne room, but from where she stood she could not look down upon it as, unknown to her, Marco had done when he’d watched her midnight coronation. The castle’s air was green and poisoned, like a cloud had settled upon it. Why, she could barely see even a few inches before her face.
A loud screech pierced the air. Oh no.
Lucia panicked. What was Leo’s secret? What did the White Knight know? If only she’d been able to figure it out!
The Princess dropped to her knees as her adversary shot through the fog above her. She saw the Outsider wheel to face her. It was only one monster, but the malformed creature that dared to attack her symbolized all the threats and all the fear that had plagued her, her brother, and her kingdom for one-thousand days and more. In that single second she locked eyes with the beast, and suddenly forgot to be afraid.
She was angry.
The monster sped toward her in the darkness, but in that instant Lucia dove for one of the castle’s large candelabras and swung it with all her strength. She batted the demon to the far wall where it exploded in a blast of smoke. Lucia didn’t look back but ran for the throne room, and she could see from the mezzanine arches that Leo lived – but before she could reach the stairs she felt herself restrained.
There was a loud ripping sound. Clinging to the torn hem of her skirt was the demon Ugli.
“I got her, boss, I got her!” he yelled gleefully. Gee, wouldn’t his lordship be impressed?
Then he took one look at Lucia and screamed.
“You.” Her eyes were flashing green.
Ugli yelped and let go of her skirt, but she’d already seized him.
“I’m sorry!” he squealed. “I didn’t mean it! It was orders! I had to do it! HELP!”
Pitiless, Lucia proceeded to chuck him over the balustrade, a thirty foot drop. “That was for kidnapping my brother and ruining my skirt!”
The thing’s body disappeared in the fray and Lucia rushed toward the staircase. On the way down she located Leo still tirelessly wielding the White Knight’s sword against his fierce enemy. He looked like the soldier she remembered before the war, not the selfish Crown Prince he’d since become.
She pressed on through the battle, but just as she reached his side he plunged his sword through a monster and whirled to face her as though he would cleave her in half. A look of greatest shock and alarm flew into his eyes.
“What are you doing here?”
His sister winced as behind him, a soldier felled a monster that seconds ago had been barreling toward Leo’s head. “I had to tell you – “
Leo looked furious. “I’m trying to keep you safe!”
“You don’t understand – “
“WHY can’t you LISTEN to someone for ONCE in your life – “
Apparently she had to scream it in his face. He took a step back. “M…Marco?”
She searched for a way to explain, but before she could say another word she felt the strangest sensation. It was as if the energy in the room shifted.
She knew Leo felt it too. He lowered his sword for the first time since pulling it from its scabbard and, breathing raggedly, watched as the Outsiders responded to an unseen signal.
They dropped their weapons and dropped their prey – the soldiers fell back, startled and exhausted and confused, and the demoni, with a flapping of wings and a scuttling of feet and claws, swarmed together before streaking out of the throne room to the upper floors.
The same phenomenon occurred the ballroom. At first Sergio let out a cheer, thinking they had won, but Izzy felt a terrible presentiment, and Brutus grimaced. “That ain’t good.”
Brutus and Izzy took off through the ballroom doors to see the demons cramming themselves through the opening of the musician’s gallery, high up in the wall, like insects into a hole. They tumbled over one another, pulled by some invisible force.
Then Izzy asked, in a ghastly voice – “Where’s Marco?”
All he could hear was wretched laughing. Mocking, joyless laughter, deep and hollow, broken only by unearthly howling and cries.
The Fool pushed himself to his feet, and with a terrible yell he tried to strike out at the monsters surrounding him on every side.
“Not so quick, are we boy?”
Marco struck at open air, then he felt something slam against his back and he was once more thrown to the floor. He could feel them crawling on him, over his shoulders, into his hair, but he fought to reach for his weapon – only a few feet away.
It spiraled out of view. Fiorvante kicked it.
With a mixed cry of indignation and horror, Marco tried to stand but was only pulled down to the tile. Fiorvante’s shadow loomed above him.
“Let’s see you get out of this one. If you’re so clever, get up and prove it!”
He wanted to! He couldn’t! He felt like was being torn apart – he could hear the leather straps of his armor snapping, could hear it clang against the ground as pieces were wrenched off and thrown away.
Fiorvante’s demons have a weakness. No they didn’t. It was a lie!
He felt teeth biting into his neck, claws tearing at his face and the fabric of his motley. If only he could think! But his brain was filled with fluttering, and snapping, and triumphant gloating insults.
For a moment, robbed of his armor and several pounds lighter, he managed to retreat, but he crawled scarcely any distance before realizing he was trapped, caged in the musician’s gallery. He turned and again the monsters swarmed him, insects on a corpse, and Fiorvante’s face – just his face, like he didn’t have a body! – leered mask-like from the shadows beyond.
The Fool hunched against the balcony, and there was the laughter again – that same laughter he’d never been able to escape – and he was so afraid. They hit him and cut jagged stripes in his skin to match his costume, and he felt stupid, and useless and weak, and he was remembering the days in the village, and the faces of his family, all disappointed, and remembered brutes and bloody noses, and comments and cold sneers of disapproval, and he knew he was bleeding, and he knew he was crying out, that his heart felt like it would burst from fear, but still there was that laughter above everything else – and he felt as if something in him were giving up, that there was no use fighting it.
The gallery railings dug into his shoulders, and if he weren’t sitting, pushing backwards on his heels, Marco thought he could easily be heaved into the great hall. He thought he would die at any second - but at every second, he took another painful breath, and wondered, why hadn’t they killed him? They had all the powers of Hell. What were they waiting for?
They were waiting for their master. Fiorvante’s face appeared, and his body with it, and Marco knew he wanted to deal the final blow.
His voice stood out in the tumult. “You cannot hide from what you are. Brainless, useless, a waste of breath – “
“ – and now I will do you the favor of removing you from this great comedy called life.” His face was the barest space away from Marco’s – he could feel the man’s breath. “Such a shame you were never able to guess that little riddle of mine.”
The riddle. Marco swallowed his own metallic blood, and for a strange moment he could think of nothing else. The riddle. In mind of man is this thing born…
“But then, why should I be surprised?”
It wields no power of its own…kings and heroes it alike destroys.
“After all, why expect anything of a Fool?”
Fiorvante’s mouth split to reveal a triumphant yellow smile, but it lasted only a moment. It shrank and faded away as he looked into the Royal Fool’s face, and saw a smile growing there instead.
When the Fool burst out laughing, Fiorvante jumped back as if he had been shot. The demons themselves paused.
Pinned against the balustrade, Marco laughed and laughed until he was breathless and tears streamed down his face.
The boy was stark-raving mad. “What are you doing?” his lordship bit out. “What are you laughing at?”
And suddenly Marco’s face was dead serious. “The answer,” he said, “is fear.”
Fiorvante went from green to white, and a thousand pairs of still black eyes watched him closely. “What did you say?”
“Did I stutter? Fear. It’s been the answer all along, hasn’t it? Hiding, right below my nose - no wonder I didn’t see it!” Marco calmly plucked a demon off his arm and tossed it away. “Now it all makes sense! Your monsters can’t harm us, unless we let them. They’re powerless. You’re powerless.”
Clearly unnerved, Fiorvante swept his sword from his cape. “Watch it, boy!” He pressed the blade up against Marco’s throat. “You are nothing but a Fool. You are no match for me!”
Marco blinked down at the weapon, glinting in the green glow. He chuckled to himself. “I may be a Fool, but at least I know the truth. You tried to use our fears against us, and you only made us stronger.” Then, without warning, he had something in his hand, some kind of instrument, like a lute. “Funny how things work out, isn’t it?”
He smashed his lute down on Fiorvante’s head. It crashed, it twanged, the strings broke, and it shattered into millions of tiny splinters like a spray of stars. The sorcerer reeled and dropped his sword. His delighted enemy kicked it out of reach.
Fiorvante let out a scream, and Marco thought it was rage, but the demoni knew better, and they twisted and sprang upon their master.
Marco jumped to his feet as Fiorvante was dragged backwards into the arcade, watched as the Outsiders clung to every piece of clothing, every spindle limb. Beneath the thrashing green bodies his lordship shrieked and howled, and in one moment his face looked like a corpse, and then his face flashed with the appearance of a skeleton, and if Marco had known the Duke of Il Scuro had sold his soul once upon a time, and was little more than a disguised cadaver, this all would have made a lot more sense.
Why, that couldn’t be – but he had no time to wonder about the voice below. Fiorvante’s deadly, horrible struggle was blocking his one exit from the musicians’ gallery. Well, maybe not the only one, but the most convenient one, anyway…
Down in the great hall, Izzy, Brutus, and Jangle stood in the doorway from the ballroom, staring up at the transformation. Leo and Lucia stood at the throne room’s entrance. Not one of them could remove their eyes from the fight in the musician’s gallery and then, someone screamed.
Fiorvante, little more than a mass of writhing demons, made a sudden lunge for the Royal Fool. He was thrown against the gallery banisters, where he flailed and pitched off balance, clutching at air before tumbling to the floor below.
With a gruesome cry, a rending sound, and a brilliant blast of light, the sorcerer’s second life was finished; and as he breathed his last, his hold on his Outsiders and their link to this world was severed, and they disappeared like dust in the air.
The fog lifted, the light cleared, and there lay Marco, motionless, in the middle of the great hall.
Leo reached him first, with great heavy steps that echoed in the silence. It was the Princess Lucia who raised his head from the ground and brushed his hair out of his face.
“Come on, Marco. Please, speak to me!”
All of his friends were torn and battered, but Marco had been utterly savaged. His uniform was slashed to shreds. His skin was filthy with sweat and blood. Scratches scored every inch of his body, and black livid bruises were already springing to the surface of his arms and face.
Yet as Lucia knelt over him, tears in her eyes, he opened one eye of his own, looked around with his old mischief, and croaked out:
“It’s all in the tuck and roll.”
(end of Chapter 19)
Aug 28, 2015
Screaming echoed down the hallway, and the maid and the guard took off in the direction of the sound. They found Chancellor Reggio hiding under his desk, feebly shooing at an Outsider that snapped its jaws just a few inches away. Brutus cut down the demon with one of his weapons then crushed its skull under his boot. Since it didn’t resemble an insect in the least, that wasn’t too difficult, and the monster vaporized instantly. He had no idea what had changed, why the demons could be killed, but he wasn’t gonna knock it – after all, the only good Outsider was a dead one.
The Chancellor pushed his head out, bewildered, but before he could speak a series of fierce yells in the hallway urged them all through the door. Sergio was outside, little precocious Sergio, fending off three monsters with a poker and the air of a master swordsman.
Indignant - he was only a little boy! - Izzy marched over and strangled two of them and kicked the third against the wall with a splat. In response Sergio cried, “Bellissimo!” and kissed his fingertips in gratitude and approval, making the great handmaid blush.
With this powerful beginning Brutus Burllio and Isabella, demon-hunters, plunged into room after room, saving all manner of handmaids and servants from the torments of the enemy. Soon they had amassed a small, emboldened army of their own, which went trooping through the castle’s labyrinth hallways. But none of them expected the sight that greeted them when they returned to the ground floor. Though the Prince and his men were still standing, brandishing their swords and weapons without fail, the Outsiders’ supernatural powers meant the men were severely outnumbered and outmatched no matter how many monsters they felled. Scores of Fiorvante’s minions had escaped the blades of the Prince’s army, and fled the battle to target the other, more defenseless members of the castle, which they had corralled into the great space that served as ballroom.
Brutus and Izzy, with their rescued followers, halted in one of the ballroom doorways, watching as the Outsiders chased the maids and pulled their hair, and fiercely clawed at the manservants and grooms. Lo and behold there, in the middle of the turmoil, three guards stood back to back while a ring of demoni danced around them and taunted them: Antonio de Farro, Paolo Bianchi, and Franco Laurito.
Now Brutus was no angel, and he laughed a smug little laugh at this sight, until Izzy elbowed him and sent him stumbling across the floor. “Hey Outsiders!” he yelled, pulling out his knife with a gleam in his eye. “Pick on someone your own size!”
And then a fierce battle erupted. The Outsiders rushed toward the newcomers, who drove them back as valiantly as the soldiers in the throne room. Brutus and Izzy took the lot of them, and broke a great number of chairs and crockery in the process. The Chancellor smashed one monster between the pages of a book and felt as ruthless as Ghengis Khan. Signor Fabian charged forth with his tailor’s shears in hand, which made a surprisingly bloody, yet impeccably stylish battle weapon. Jangle, separated from the Fool, swooped down from the heights of the ceiling and dropped heavy missiles from the clutches of his claws. And of course Sergio, that patriotic Valonian, dashed to and fro skewering monsters until he effectively rendered them into demon-kabobs on the end of his poker.
When Brutus reached the trapped guardsmen, he frowned at them with sheer disgust, but he and Izzy warded off their captors as they would do for anyone else. In fact, those demons were rather small, and the job was easy.
The second he was freed Captain de Farro ran for cover yet again. Paolo and Franco, though they were cowering, did not follow him.
“W-what can we do, Burllio?” Paolo asked.
The answer was obvious to Brutus, who waved his arm around the room. “FIGHT!”
Beneath the efforts in the throne room and the ballroom, the number of Outsiders, miraculously, began to dwindle. Perhaps more of those demons could have been called to battle if a powerful sorcerer were so inclined. But Lord Fiorvante, Duke of Il Scuro, had his eye on more important prey.
One of the great weaknesses of a learned man is a certain kind of obsession. Such fanaticism had led Fiorvante to master his evil studies, to create his flying machines, to bring his duchy to ruin, and to set his sights on the land of Valona. Now, someone had offended him, and become the target of his mania. The last person guilty of such a crime was good King Umberto himself, a worthy adversary, a powerful ruler of a great kingdom. This time the enemy that humiliated him was someone weak, and brainless, and unexpected who had struck when his lordship was unprepared.
So Fiorvante, unmoved by the battle raging in the distance, tracked the Royal Fool through the castle’s upper floors. He knew the place well – that clod Leonardo had led him to every nook and cranny within hours of his arrival.
His hatred had not robbed him of his elegance and refinement, it only showed itself in the spark of his eye, or the heightened green of his skin. He would smoke the Fool out. He knew the boy was impulsive, despite his mettle. Fiorvante took his time. He was in no hurry. Hadn’t he waited three full years before launching his second attack on this blasted kingdom?
His lordship stepped lightly down the hall. He swept his side-sword in front of him, slicing through the air. All the while he was sharply scanning his surroundings, mindful of every shadow, every sound.
“You can’t hide forever, boy. You might as well give it up. You have no idea whom you’re dealing with.”
“You sure about that?”
The Duke paused. A long row of columns lined the arcade before him, and the Fool’s voice echoed from the darkness.
“Oh, no! A geezer in slippers! I’m shaking here, seriously.”
Fiorvante whirled as a flash of metal darted behind him. “Riddle me this: if you’re so smart, then how were you ever fooled by a guy like me? Surprise! Trick question!”
The sorcerer roared in pain and fury as the Fool, now possessed of a sword, lashed out at his side.
“I know you’re thinking, ‘Marco, how are you so good at this?’” The Fool took the time to shrug. “I guess it’s just beginners’ luck!”
“You Fool!” Fiorvante struck with his blade, but Marco blocked it cleanly with his own sword.
“Come on, now that’s just lazy!”
It’s working. Tony had given him beautiful practice. The Duke might be evil, but he was also pompous and vain, and his pride was upsetting his parry.
Marco ducked again and pricked at the villain’s leg, ripping a hole in his stocking. Maybe he was enjoying this too much. He lost his blade in the nobleman’s green cape, and he felt his opponent’s sword slice the air above his head. Now that was a little close.
His cartwheels and capers had kept him nimble, and it was a good thing too, because he had to admit, Fiorvante was a strong swordsman. Though Marco was lanky the Duke was taller still, and a bigger man with a longer, more forceful reach. Marco danced away from the thrusts of the sword, backwards down the aisle. He knew exactly where they were, in the arcade leading toward the loft in the great hall. Had it really only been three days since his performance at the gala? Where he’d hassled the musicians with his lute?
He had a suspicion Fiorvante knew the location too, thanks to Leo, but it didn’t matter, all that mattered was that they stayed as far away from the Princess as they could for as long as possible.
Now Marco lunged forward, and Fiorvante blocked the blade with a loud crash of metal.
“Ooh, good one! See, you’re learning!”
The Duke drew a heavy breath, and Marco thought he sounded a little worse for the wear. But he only called out, in his simpering voice, “Playing games, are we? My turn.”
Marco puzzled at this statement, and puzzled almost long enough to lose his favorite ear. He switched his sword to his left hand and took another swipe.
“It seems I underestimated you,” Fiorvante mused. He lunged especially hard, and his sword clattered against Marco’s breastplate. “You are quite the swordsman! Yet I suppose you must be good at something. Your humor leaves much to be desired.”
“Not funny? HA!” Marco continued to back down the hall. “I think you got the wrong guy!”
“I don’t deny,” he countered, “that people laughed AT you.”
At him? No, they laughed with him. That was the whole point of the job. Marco decided Fiorvante was very stupid. They laughed at his jokes. Not at him. He made them laugh, on purpose. They weren’t laughing at him.
Marco clasped the hilt with both hands and aimed for Fiorvante’s neck, but now his lordship briskly stepped aside.
“I’m sure there were some who pitied you, though. A poor stupid commoner who believed himself friend to the Prince? They would never dream of laughing at him. Take the Princess, for instance.”
He’s messing with you. It’s not true.
Marco clenched his fingers around the grip of his weapon and backed away. “Poor Marco.” The Duke tsked through his teeth, and somehow looked very tall and powerful. “He doesn’t belong with royalty, or commoners, or anywhere. He is worthless, ridiculous – and that’s all he’ll ever be.”
Fiorvante darted like a snake, aimed for Marco’s bare neck, and as the Fool dodged the blow he lost his balance and tripped over his metal boot, crashing against the floor.
He heard the man’s horrible laughter, scrambled on his hands and knees for his sword, turned - and before he could even shriek, he was taken down by a swarm of merciless monsters from Hell.
(to be continued)
Aug 21, 2015
“Marco!” She pounded her palms against the wood. She rattled the iron pull. “Let me out!” Did he really expect her to hide away? To preserve herself while her people fought and died all around her? “Marco,” she yelled again, “I – “
The dogged silence on the other side of the door was broken by an echo of malevolent laughter.
Out in the hallway, the Fool immediately flattened himself against the door. He knew the Duke would go straight for the source of power, the Crown Princess. Even Leo knew it. He couldn’t let that happen, couldn’t let the sorcerer deal that devastating blow. He’d have to create a diversion. I can do this. He nodded, wishing he wasn’t sweating like a schoolboy at the memory of their meeting in Il Scuro. Yeah. I can totally do this.
Through a swirl of green fog Fiorvante appeared, his magic allowing him to travel quickly and at ease as the occasion required. A simple spell, really, quite easily mastered, even more necessary since a number of scoundrels had made off in his favorite machine.
Marco planted his feet and eyed the man with a shaky breath. Normally the Duke of Il Scuro’s face exuded calm and confidence, but now the Fool thought he saw a spark of wrath kindling in his yellow eye. Those yellow eyes focused on the mock Knight as Fiorvante paced toward him.
“So, you thought you could make a game of me, eh, boy? Did you honestly think I’d mistake the Royal Fool for the glorious Hero of Valona?”
“You said it, not me.”
“Well think again!”
Marco watched in dismay as Fiorvante pulled an elegant sword, long and thin like a beam of light, from the folds of his cape. That was okay. No big deal. Marco was wearing armor, and he had a sword too, a big one, and it was not hanging at his side or anywhere on his person because, oh yeah, Leo had nicked it and was stabbing with the pointy end three floors away.
Leo, if you survive, I’m gonna kill you.
So as Fiorvante lunged for him with the razor sharp blade, the Fool employed his standard back-up plan, codename: Duck At The Last Minute.
The Duke’s sword burrowed into the thick carved door, barely missing Marco’s exposed head and neck. He raged and swore as he tried to pull it free.
“Aw, is that the best you can do?” Grinning at the sorcerer’s venomous snarl, Marco thumbed his nose and took off down the hall.
Lucia, in the study, had instantly fallen silent at Fiorvante’s voice. He’s not after me. She pressed her ear against the door, knowing the Fool was leaning against the other side, the sole object of his lordship’s vengeful hate and fury. He’s not after me. It’s not me he wants. It’s Marco! And she knew the Fool didn’t stand a chance.
She froze at the sound of commotion in the hall, a thump on the other side of the door. Then, hearing Marco cry out, “Can’t catch me!” she knew she was left alone.
Without a second to spare, Lucia pushed away from the carved mahogany and analyzed the room. One doorway, one window. The glass was too thick to break, and led to a sixty foot drop besides. Her only escape was the door.
If she’d had the luxury of time she would have been furious that it was her own team and not the enemy who had trapped her so neatly, but now she only stepped back and studied the door. She couldn’t kick or break it down, but the pins could be slipped. She just needed something to push them out of place, something strong and narrow, with an edge, like a chisel, or…
She stared at the pins on the wall, and then at the stiletto heels of her boots.
Three minutes later the heavy locked door fell out into the hallway to reveal the Princess, leaning against the frame and pulling on her boot, looking rather pleased with herself.
She’d always known those boots would pay for themselves…eventually.
The castle was green and dark, but the coast was clear, so the Crown Princess hurried toward the shouting, toward the throne room, toward her brother, because she had to warn him. She could only hope that this time he would listen!
When Prince Leo jumped into action and slew three Outsiders in a single swipe, Izzy’s first thought was, Did anybody else see that? Her second thought was, We’re all gonna die, and she trembled accordingly.
The small company of surviving soldiers rushed through the broken windows to their Prince’s aid, and man and monster filled the throne room, a mass of struggling bodies. For a moment, some of them almost believed the White Knight had returned - who else could drive the Outsiders away, and yet remain unscathed? But it was not that fabled hero, it was their good Prince Leonardo who led the attack against their greatest enemy, and faced them without a spark of fear. So the soldiers, once again, took hope and courage.
The troops followed every command the young royal hurled their way in the midst of the struggle. They had almost forgotten what a strong soldier he had once been, reminded only by the accuracy and precision of his orders. With a great effort, the Prince and this troops managed to contain the demons within the throne room’s bounds, but no one was certain that their defense would last. The servants continued to run for their lives.
“Oh, Brutus,” Izzy gulped as they dashed to the upper floors, “what are we going to do?”
“I dunno – they can’t hold ‘em forever!”
“B-but, who’s going to save us? I don’t know how to fight!”
Brutus frowned, then set his jaw. Those rats, called themselves guards, and they threw their hands up and ran at the first sight of trouble. When everyone needed ‘em most! “Don’t worry, Iz,” he promised. He patted her small hand with his gloved one. “I’ll protect you.”
Izzy couldn’t think of a word to say. She stared down at the brave little man with the determined expression, and all of a sudden she knew why she couldn’t talk to him in the dungeons, or leave his side even if she’d wanted to. What a dummy she’d been! Why, she didn’t admire Brutus Burllio, she loved him!
“Brutus, I – “
Her breath caught. She heard a whip-like sound pass through the air behind her.
Brutus turned warily, his knife raised before his face. Even though he was not quite four feet tall, his heavy black brow, bloodshot eyes, and clenched teeth gave him a mighty threatening appearance.
“Come on, ya wimps!” He brandished the knife like a man of war. “Let’s see whatcha got!”
Izzy’s knees shook. If these Outsiders had gotten past the Prince and his men, did that mean they were stronger? Oh, what if they hurt Brutus? What if he couldn’t fight them off?
And yet she was numb with fear. The air around them was silent, filled with eerie light. Maybe they were gone. She strained to listen. Maybe they hadn’t seen them. Maybe they thought a pair of lovebirds wasn’t worth their time. Maybe –
Brutus dug his knife into a green flash, but he only wounded it as it spiraled away. The monster shot backwards, and for the first time the guardsman could see it clearly.
It twisted back in the air – it would have looked playful if it weren’t sizing up its prey.
“B-Brutus?” Though her hands were glued to her face, Izzy summoned the courage to peek through her fingers. Then her heart skipped a beat.
The monster confronting the love of her life had jagged, torn wings, a long, segmented body, a pair of pincers on its ugly mouth, and a cruel, sharp stinger.
Izzy could barely breathe but she thought Brutus might have stopped entirely, trembling as the Outsider zipped back and forth before him. And as he stood there more monsters emerged from the green shadows, some crawling, some flying, some on six legs and more on eight, all with pincers and stingers and solid black eyes, all of them advancing slowly, enjoying the hunt.
“Bugs,” Brutus whispered. “Why’d it have to be bugs?”
Izzy wanted to cry or scream or run away, but somehow she couldn’t do it. She stared at the awful beasts, then at poor Brutus shaking like a leaf, and when the one with the jagged wings made a lunge toward her little guardsman, Mistress Isabella seized a vase from a hallway niche and brought it crashing down on the monster’s head. It burst into a cloud of smoke and disappeared.
Snapped back to life, Brutus yelled, “WHAT THE – “ just in time to see Izzy bring a chair down on a cluster of mutated spiders. The next second he found himself heaved up by his collar and flung beyond Izzy’s broad blue skirts.
The chair crashed against the tile and another pair of flying Outsiders hurtled toward the White Knight’s handmaid. She punched them in the face. Then, with a tremendous crushing sound, she stomped another green exoskeleton into oblivion. Like a sky-colored blur Izzy fought off demonic insect after demonic insect, never stopping, never failing, until the hallway was clear, the demoni vanquished to their hellish realm.
Brutus stood blinking until Izzy fell on her knees and clutched him into her arms. “Oh, Brutus, are you okay?” She looked him over for bruises and scrapes. He was in a stupor.
“How did you – “ He wasn’t even able to finish the sentence. He could only point dumbly.
“I told you, bugs are the one thing I’m not afraid of!”
Wow. What a woman. Brutus shook his head to recover himself, then grabbed her hand. “C’MON!”
“Where are we going?”
“We don’t need no stinkin’ guards!” he grinned. “Are ya with me?”
Izzy squeezed his hand. Her smile was answer enough.
(end of chapter 18)